“Brigham Young: American Moses” by Leonard J. Arrington


Loved this quote from Jedediah M. Grant, in a letter to the editor of the New York Herald, 1852:

I can’t undertake to explain Brigham Young to your Atlantic citizens, or expect you to put him at his value.  Your great men Eastward are to me like your ivory and pearl handled table knives, balance handles, more shiny than the inside of my watch case; but, with only edge enough to slice bread and cheese or help spoon victuals, and all alike by the dozen one with another.  Brigham is the article that sells out West with us – between a Roman cutlass and a beef butcher knife, the thing to cut up a deer or cut down an enemy, and that will save your life or carve your dinner every bit as well, though the handpiece is buck horn and the case a hogskin hanging in the breech of your pantaloons.  You, that judge men by the handle and sheath, how can I make you know a good Blade?

As a lifelong Mormon, and a graduate of the university that bears Brigham’s name, I feel like I know his life story pretty well.  My going-in impression is that of an almost Old Testament god-like figure: a “demanding leader, harsh disciplinarian, ruthless in his requirements” but also just right — trust him, follow him and you’ll do well.  My impression of Brigham Young is little changed after reading this biography, but it brought to my attention some of the qualities that made him such a successful leader.  He was the right man for the time.

Some of the little vignettes from the bio that I found interesting:

  • Coming from a strict, Bible-thumping family, Brigham learned early on to master self-mastery.  One of his longtime struggles after the Word of Wisdom was with chewing tobacco.  He used to keep a plug in his coat pocket, and occasionally take it out, declare to the plug that he was the boss, not it; and then replace it back in his pocket.  Neat example of his grit and willpower.
  • Neat story: when Brigham, Heber C. Kimball and George A. Smith were traveling to an eastern port prior to their mission to Great Britain, they were all sick.  Early on, they collected $13.50 in donations.  For the rest of the journey, they took stages and regular meals, but they money never ran out.  At the end they tallied up their receipts and figured $87 had been spent en route.
  • Story of some of his daughters  entertaining their boyfriends in the parlor one evening.  They had arranged books around the lamp so it was rather dark.  Soon Brigham enters, surveys the scene.  Quietly removes the books, then addresses the kids: “The girls will go up to bed.  I will wish the gentleman a good night.”  How many of those guys must have wet their pants in fear at that moment…
  • Brigham, the practical prophet.  “The highest inspiration is good sense – the knowing what to do, and how to do it.”  I think a lot of times, Brigham’s prophetical “inspiration” was just doing what he thought was the right thing to do.  Either he was so “in tune” with God that he received constant revelation, or perhaps constant revelation wasn’t required much of the time, because God knew that Brigham would do what he Himself would do.  Isn’t this what is meant by acquiring the mind and will of God?
  • Brigham’s opinion was that a lot of the Bible is figurative … it was what people could understand.  Women did not literally come from Adam’s rib; that’s like something you would tell a child.
  • Brigham never prepared notes or rehearsed for any of his sermons.  Pretty amazing.
  • Mountain Meadows – Brigham repeatedly tried to encourage officials to investigate and put the offenders on trial, but convinced it was kept in limbo in order to be used as a talking point against him and the “bloodthirsty Mormons.”

Brigham’s legacy to his people, per Arrington:

  1. Self-sufficiency in all things; independence from Gentiles
  2. Cooperative institutions (tithing, PEF, colonization, United Order)
  3. “Temporal salvation” – church and man should be active in improving temporal conditions as well as spiritual.  Kingdom of God is like the soul being the combination of body + spirit; really impossible to divide and remain what it is intended to be.  (Reflected in the mingling of his personal accounts with those of the church … but that was also influenced by an anti-bigamy law that limited church property to $50,000)
  4. Attitude that Mormonism embraces all truth, wherever it is found
  5. His own strong personality; almost a legendary figure in his own day and certainly now

What do you think?

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